Natural selection; the new Deity?
Over and over in his book The God delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins turns to natural selection as the saviour of his system: ‘Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion’.1
Dawkins is sensitive to the charge that natural selection is just a glorified version of luck and chance. Responding to the accusation that life originating on earth apart from God is as likely as a hurricane in a scrapyard assembling a Boeing 747, Dawkins retorts: ‘This … argument … could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas – in the relevant sense of chance – it is the opposite’.2
Chance or not chance?
If natural selection is not a theory of chance, exactly what is it? Dawkins is ready to explain: ‘What is it that makes natural selection succeed as a solution to the problem of improbability, where chance and design both fail at the starting gate? The answer is that natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces.
‘Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so. When large numbers of these slightly improbable events are stacked up in a series, the end product of the accumulation is very very improbable indeed … The creationist completely misses the point, because he … insists on treating the genesis of statistical improbability as a single, one-off event. He doesn’t understand the power of accumulation’.3
The argument, then, is that the end product (say a tree or an animal) would not be possible if it was a ‘single, one-off event’. But if it is the result of a multitude of random acts of creation, each building on the last, then virtually anything is possible.
But it seems to me that whether creation is a ‘one-off’ chance action or an accumulation of millions of acts of chance per created object, it is still chance. And by atheistic definition, natural selection must involve unguided acts of chance since there is no God.
But to hold to such a belief the atheist must ascribe to natural selection the very attributes that it denies to God – omniscience and omnipotence. To the atheist, natural selection, with its power of accumulation, becomes God.
Origin of life
Next up is the sticky issue of how life began. For even the most devoted evolutionist the origin of life is virtually inexplicable. Natural selection cannot deliver because before life began there was nothing to select.
Dawkins skirts the issue by propounding a theory he calls the ‘Goldilocks zone’. That is, earth just happened to be situated in the universe where conditions were just right – ‘in ways that singled it out for the evolution of life’.4
If this sounds a bit like luck to you, you would be correct and Dawkins ironically agrees – there apparently is a lot of luck floating around in the evolutionary pond. ‘It may be’, he admits, ‘that the origin of life is not the only major gap in the evolutional story that is bridged by sheer luck’ – the origin of the type of cells found in advanced organisms and the origin of consciousness may also have been sheer luck. 5
A scientific defence of theism
Richard Dawkins was until recently an eminent professor at Oxford University, yet his book The God delusion is faulted scientifically even by his own peers – both Christian and non-Christian. Perhaps the most helpful critique is that of Alister McGrath, himself an Oxford professor of historical theology and a scientist with a degree in molecular biophysics.
While McGrath respects Dawkins as a scientist (and sadly accepts some form of theistic evolution) he believes that, in attempting to propagate his atheistic views, Dawkins left the evidence of science at the door and launched into a fundamentalist rant.
According to McGrath in his own book The Dawkins delusion, 6 Dawkins misrepresents his sources, stretches the facts, makes up unpersuasive pseudo-scientific ideas to bolster his position, and in general simply does not prove his case.
Science, as Dawkins knows, cannot prove or disprove God. It can, however, examine the evidence and make various hypotheses. Given the evidence, which hypothesis best makes sense of all we see and observe around us? Is it the theory of evolution, which believes in random chance, omniscient but impersonal natural selection? Or is it a creator God who wisely brought all things into existence and placed in balance the highly complex and integrated universe that we can study scientifically and enjoy physically, emotionally and spiritually?
The New Atheists have placed their bets on natural selection and evolutionary theory, but they know these things cannot be verified. Dawkins even admits that Darwinism, as he understands it today, may radically change and even be disproven in the future.
He writes, ‘New facts may come to light which will force our successors … to abandon Darwinism or modify it beyond recognition’.7 Yet he gamely clings to his evolutionary theories and belittles anyone he considers foolish enough to believe in God.
Atheists are placing their faith in a theory that they can be reasonably certain will not be the same a hundred years from now. Christians place their faith in a God who claims to be the same ‘yesterday, today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8). Ultimately, the New Atheists’ rejection of God is not scientific, it is philosophical and spiritual.
A philosophical defence of theism
Alister McGrath claims, ‘The God delusion is a work of theater rather than scholarship – a fierce, rhetorical assault on religion and passionate plea for it to be banished to the lunatic fringes of society, where it can do no harm’. 8
He is not alone; even Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton attacks Dawkins for his naïve view that Christians live by blind faith void of evidence. He writes, ‘Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The book of British birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology … For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief’. 9
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga challenges Dawkins’ basic understanding of philosophical and theological issues involving theism. In rather demeaning words, Plantinga states, ‘Why, you might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that will be unfair to sophomores [undergraduate students]’.10
The New Atheist has accepted by faith (blind or otherwise) that God does not exist and that the universe has no design or purpose. Any design or purpose is just an appearance of such and natural selection reigns supreme.
This leads to spiritual implications that I will cover in the final article of this short series, but for now we need to think carefully about the evidence. Neither the atheist nor the theist can prove scientifically that God exists – both must express faith to a certain degree. Nevertheless, both must come to their conclusions based upon an examination of the evidence that they have before them.
The atheist attempts to take the high ground here, claiming that science is on his side – for, after all, according to Dawkins, only about seven per cent of scientists in the US National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God.11 Case closed? Not so fast.
Another well-known survey of scientists in 1997 found that 40 per cent believed in God, 40 per cent did not, and 20 per cent were uncertain.12 The difference, as with many surveys, seems to be in how the questions were presented.
Nevertheless, the point is this: even scientists, handling the same physical evidence, come to different conclusions about the existence of God. It cannot simply be assumed that some scientists are stupid and others are smart.
To be concluded
1. Richard Dawkins, The God delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), pp. 5, 158.
2-5 Ibid., respectively, pp. 113, 121, 136, 140.
6. Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins delusion (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007).
7. Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s chaplain (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003), p.81.
8. Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins delusion, pp. 96-97.
9. Terry Eagleton, ‘Lunging, flailing, mispunching’: A Review of Richard Dawkins’ The God delusion in London review of books, Vol. 28, No. 20, 19 October 2006.
10. A. Mohler, p.79.
11. Richard Dawkins, The God delusion, p.100.
12. Timothy Keller, The reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), p.89.